Archive for Friday, October 18, 2002

Daily conveniences warrant Nobel

October 18, 2002

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I've long admired the Nobel Prizes, but whenever they're awarded for such breakthroughs as conducive polymers, I find myself wishing there were categories for things that more directly improve daily life.

Today, I'd like to nominate a few such minor Nobels.

Start with that lift-tab thing on plastic coffee-cup covers. It may not be as complex as mass spectrometry research, which won the Nobel this year, but the lift-tab inventor at least deserves status as semi-laureate. The lift-tab, which I doubt is found in nonconsumer societies like Cuba and North Korea, has avoided countless spills, kept drinks from premature cooling, and thereby improved life as we know it.

I'd also like to laud the scientists who invented pre-washed salad in a bag. This may be less technical than the discovery of super-fluidity in Helium-3, but Helium-3 cannot be poured directly into a bowl and served before dinner. Having been raised to feel that instant gratification takes too long, I was tired of buying four different kinds of salad material, then tearing, cleaning and mixing them. I especially like the salad-in-a-bag that comes with its own packet of dressing, thereby relieving the stress of having to make any salad decisions at all.

I would further accord semi-laureate status to the inventor of ice dispensers in refrigerators. Again, it may be on a different level than theorizing the methodology of organic synthesis, but it's appreciated by all who grew up with those metal ice trays, where the cubes exploded whenever you pulled the release lever. Not to mention that it was always a game of chicken to see who would refill the trays, and usually nobody did, so you had no ice.

My final non-Nobel this year goes to the inventor of the ATM machine, which has allowed, as a child once observed, the ability to get money out of walls. Meaning no disrespect for the now-primitive concept of human tellers, but the wait for them was usually longer than that at the Department of Motor Vehicles. I am not sure why most banks built 24 teller stations and only staffed one, but the ATM means I don't have to worry about it any more.

Honorable mentions for non-Nobels go to the seek-button on car radios, one-hour photo finishing, microwave popcorn and Velcro. Oh, and duct tape, which may not be as scientific as high-resolution nuclear magnetic resonance machines, which won a recent Nobel, but I'll bet when those machines break, they use duct tape to fix them.

Now to the opposite category. I also saw that a group gave "ig-Nobel" prizes this year to questionable scientific studies, including one estimating the total surface area of Indian elephants.

I'd like to suggest a few ig-Nobel prizes of my own, more geared to real world inventions that detract from the quality of life.

The first goes to those dental x-ray films that you have to bite down on. The manufacturers continue to have their edges sharpened at the Ginsu knife factory, and until that stops, they deserve an ig-Nobel.

I'd further nominate the inventor of those hospital johnnies where you can't tie them in the back unless both your shoulders are double jointed. I don't know why they assigned the design of such johnnies to an obvious deviant who was into looking at people's exposed backsides in hospital corridors, but if that product doesn't deserve non-laureate status, I don't know what does.

Finally, I'd love to give an ig-Nobel to the most consumer-unfriendly invention of current times, the stock market. It has reduced the logical business of money into hyper-emotional, school-of-fish decision-making. In addition, it has lured once-staid CEOs into crooked accounting by making stock price more important than such drab concepts as balanced books and legitimate profits.

That does it for the 2002 daily life awards.

Oh one more comes to mind: A daily-life Nobel for the cell phone. I doubt anything has improved the convenience of communication since the telephone itself.

Then again, cell phones have turned motorists into distracted space cadets; teenagers into annoying, nonstop public cell-talkers. And, whose idea was it to give each phone a distinct ring based on a pop song?

A Nobel to cell phones, or an ig-Nobel? Probably both.




Mark Patinkin is a columnist for the Providence Journal. His e-mail address is mpatinkinprojo.com.

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